Nocturnal Animals ★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

This is a head-spinning exercise in some ways, though at bottom it remains just a touch too superficial to really work. Amy Adams is an unhappily married artist who seems unsatisfied by her (provocative but empty) work and by seemingly everything else; she receives a novel in the post written by her ex-husband, about whom her feelings have remained warm through the years despite an acrimonious breakup. We then see much of that novel visualized, occasioning a number of adept and terrifying suspense sequences despite the hackneyed noir plot: a family gets run off the road and terrorized, the survivor (Jake Gyllenhaal) spending the rest of the story trying to avenge his wife and daughter. The novel's themes of male weakness and toxic masculinity clearly resonate with its reader, but the rather adolescent narrative seems dedicated mostly to just stringing her along and owning her, which is just too simplistic to justify all the trouble. You get two for the price of one: a rape-revenge cycle and a revenge-through-fiction cycle. Most ill-advised is the decision to use abortion as the linchpin in the "real-world" story that prompts the author's prolonged resentment; it has rather distressing implications, and I can't imagine it would fly in a mainstream film even just four years later.

The performances are good, especially Michael Shannon as a rogue cop who's impeccably portrayed as the empty literary device he is. For a good long stretch it's all riveting, but I was hoping the conclusions it was drawing toward were closer to something like Elliot Perlman's novel Seven Types of Ambiguity, which explores a kidnapping from every conceivable angle with an astonishing surfeit of empathy. This is so much more cynical even as it toys vainly with more interesting themes like the "true love" vs. "mock love" dichotomy, because it does so in service of just dragging someone meaninglessly instead of expressing real insight. There's also far too much explicit statement of themes and characterizations in dialogue; I lost count of how many times characters directly assert their cynicism or sensitivity. Looking back on this I feel that it kind of falls apart in most every way I can think of, but I was greatly absorbed in it while it played out; I think the completely facile conclusion just really exposed all of its other problems in retrospect.

Nathan liked these reviews